Wow. Even though I had no idea what to expect in Shanghai, it wasn’t anything like it. It was loud. It was dirty. It smelled bad. It tasted good. It was Chinese. It was foreign. It was crowded. It was great. It was also the most international city in China. While getting to our hostel we saw more westerners, black people (current count for our entire trip so far was about six) and Chinese girls hanging on to the arms of scrawny white dudes then our entire time in China.
Unlike Beijing, which has classic Chinese architecture, Shanghai doesn’t have much, if any. There was one building that had the classic Chinese tiled roof, but it was in the middle of a construction zone and might be slated for destruction. Yet one of the things I liked most about Shanghai was the diversity of its neighborhoods. The main sections in the heart of the town are: The Bund, Pudong, Old Town, and the French Concession. When you walked from one neighborhood to the next, it would change dramatically in a matter of blocks. There was also this air of possibility. That anything goes as long as you can make it work. Oh, and there are also around 22 million people.
We spent the first day walking around the Bund – the famous walkway along the water that looks across the river towards the new high rises. Tina wasn’t feeling that well so I ended up going out to eat with some English lads I met in the hostel that afternoon. We were all fed up with Chinese food so we decided on Indian food. They made for splendid company as we got lost looking for the restaurant (we found it) and added more validity to my theory that English people are the funniest on the planet. One guy said he would love to live in SF, and I said I’d love to live in London, so we tried thinking of a way to switch nationalities.
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At the heart of Shanghai is Police Square, wait, I mean People’s Square. The square is divided by a HUGE police building who’s fencing forces you to walk all the way around to get to the other side of the park – so I always get the name wrong. People’s Square was like a mini Central Park – you could see the tops of the buildings poking out from behind the tree tops – and even had a few museums. We spent some time in the Shanghai Museum (it was free!) which had rooms full of ancient Chinese arts – bronze, sculpture, calligraphy, etc.
The sweet high culture in the museum was balanced nicely against the sour low culture out in the Square. When walking around, we must have been approached about six or seven times by different groups of young adults wanting to talk in English and inevitably invite us to tea. Each encounter followed the same format:
1. They would ask where are we from, how long where we in China, etc.
2. They love America and would talk about something they liked – usually celebrities or basketball.
3. Some conversation took place about my beard and who I looked like: Karl Marx, Santa, Einstein.
4. Usually one person in the group would be from Shanghai, and the others “visiting”.
5. They just happened to be going to an “international tea festival”, and would like us to join them.
The hostel back in Beijing had notes posted by travelers warning of this scam – you go for tea and get stuck with a huge bill, of which the scammers get a commission – so we knew to not go. But they were relentless. We would walk about two minutes, get stuck in another 15 minute conversation, get out of the invite, then walk about two more minutes before it would happen again. We finally had to stop responding to anyone who said “hello”.
After turning down all the invites for tea parties, we headed over to a section of town with art galleries – photography is big in Shanghai – where a good friend of mine has a photo gallery. He took us “backstage” and explained how they mounted the photos, organized the shows, found new artists, etc. Then that night we went out for dinner to a great Hunan place, then desert at a chocolate bar in the French Concession. The Concession was a totally different part of town then we had seen before. It had wide tree-lined streets and was much more commercial (read: cleaner). After desserts – which the chocolate bar wisely pointed out is “stressed” backwards – he took us on a walking tour of the neighborhood near his apartment.
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Getting a late start the next day, we spent the afternoon in Old Town, which is just south of the Square. This was an entirely different part of town then the parts we had seen – narrow busy streets with laundry hanging everywhere. And each block had little alleys going through to the next street over. One street had a market that was packed with people but still allowed buses to travel down. And in construction zones, the scaffolding was all bamboo trees lashed together.
Along one street there was a bird and insect market where you could by parakeets, crickets, lizards, fish, turtles, and even rabbits. When the men were perusing the crickets, they would put a little piece of straw into the box and poke the cricket with it, and watch how it responded, then closely examine the cricket. There must have been hundreds of crickets from which to choose, but I wasn’t sure what made them so different as to warrant a thorough inspection.
Then on one corner I saw a group of men huddled together with some action going on in the middle. I pushed my way as best I could to see what was going on. I had just missed the action, but people were putting crickets back into their jars and then storing them in their jacket pocket while one man was boxing up what looked like a little hockey rink made of plastic – complete with the clear plastic walls. There must be some kind of cricket competition and the straws are used to “motivate” the crickets when needed.
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Shanghai sits near the Grand Canal, a waterway built centuries ago linking the Yellow River with the Yangzi River, where there are several small watertowns that make for a good day trip for respite from the city. Tongli was recommended by a few people and seemed to offer the most without the crowds.
The night before we left, I squared away all the details on how to get there – there was a tour bus company where you paid a small commission and they took care of getting you there, paying the entrance fee, and then you were on your own until it was time to come back. But when we asked again in the morning where we caught the bus, we were told something different – and that took us to the public bus station.
There was someone there who spoke basic English, so we got on the right bus which left about five minutes later. Then when we got to the transfer station, someone there gave us a schedule of the buses back to Shanghai and explained how the shuttle buses to Tongli worked.
The town was beautiful and not that touristy. Most of the people were townsfolk just going about their day. The canals were lined with narrow cobblestone walkways – on which people still rode their bikes and scooters – with little shops, restaurants and landings were people washed their laundry or cleaned off their mops. There were also a few estates filled with temples, ponds, pagodas and sculpted rock gardens.
After catching the buses back to Shanghai, we tried to get in touch with my friend to meet up for dinner but couldn’t get a hold of him. So we headed to the French Concession to Southern Barbarian, a Yunnan restaurant my friend had recommended. The food was good except for the peanut soup. We aren’t sure if it was a translation mistake, but there was nothing “peanut” about this soup. It tasted more like the water left over after rinsing vegetables.
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Even though Tina had taken some stuff back with her, we needed to get rid of more things so we took a bunch of stuff to the post office and had it shipped home. If you send a package China Post, you take everything down to the post office and they inspect it before packing it for you. Everything went smoothly until they saw our Mao alarm clocks we had gotten on an antiques street. Evenhough these were plastic kitsch clocks, the worker took them to the back to get permission or something before letting us ship them.
After getting the package shipped – it will arrive in Oakland in about three months since it’s literally on the slow boat from China! – we headed back to People’s Square to visit the Contemporary Art museum but found it was closed. So we took the metro over to Pudong, the fancy part of Shanghai across from the Bund – where you see all the modern towers. That night we ate Thai food then hit up a little cafe where I got a brownie and banana milkshake. I must have been pretty hungry that night.